Honoring a life of teaching and giving

Teacher Dara Simenhoff Barr died last week at 46.
Teacher Dara Simenhoff Barr died last week at 46. (SUZANNE SIMENHOFF)
Posted: January 14, 2013

If Dara Simenhoff Barr liked two people, she didn't see why they shouldn't also be friends with each other. She was a teacher and a connector, the sort of person who seemed to know everyone, and wove together a large, devoted community.

Raised in Swarthmore, a resident of Mount Airy, Dara taught for many years at Germantown Friends' nursery school. Among her many students was my daughter. She tended to keep her students for life. Their parents, too. That's what she loved about the little ones. You got the whole family.

Dara died Tuesday. She was 46.

She had been sick with ovarian cancer for much of the last six years. Like many people, Dara didn't want illness and the shadow of death to define her. She wanted to be known for her three marvelous sons, her marriage, her teaching, her myriad passions and irrepressible zest.

But here's the funny thing, and Dara loved the funny thing: She never hid her cancer and, along the way, taught a great many adults and children how it's possible to thrive after being dealt the worst news imaginable.

"Her disease turned out to be an incredible gift in that it brought a whole community much closer together and taught us all to do a better job of living," said Thomas Randall, a gynecologic oncologist and friend. "She made me a better doctor. I learned a lot about how to give people bad news and good news, to understand what patients were thinking about, how they felt going home after an office visit and waiting for the next one. I learned to do a better job of soliciting information."

Randall was not the sole beneficiary of her teaching. Dara visited area medical schools and taught students to be more sensitive to the needs of patients.

She underwent three clinical trials, the last at the National Institutes of Health. Said her sister, Suzanne Simenhoff: "Dara wanted to find a cure, even if it wasn't going to work for her, so it would help someone else."

And she raised money for fellow patients and research through Dara's Defense (darasdefense.org), since 2009, more than $70,000.

Instead of a stuffy charity dinner with bad chicken, she hosted a joyous family music festival with superior beer, Dara's Defender IPA. Noted musicians like John Wesley Harding played, as did Dara's husband, Jeff, who does historic restoration and construction. Before her death, Dara and her board decided the show must go on. And so it will, June 1.

When she wasn't feeling lousy, she traveled extensively, more than many healthy people. She loved camping, music, games, beading, beer. She beaded drinking beer at a favorite bar.

The nursery schoolteacher "was secretly competitive," said friend Melissa Long. "She loved to win. She was a killer at board games." In the last year of her short, joyous life, she took up mahjong with friends. She even hired a tutor. How many people with pernicious cancer do that?

Said Long, "When she was your friend, she was there to stay." Dara believed devotedly in the long term. Her sister said, "There was nothing she was prouder of than her long-lasting marriage and her kids," Matthew, 17; David, 13; and Elliot, 11.

Dara and Jeff were married for 20 years - but together for so much longer. They met in sixth grade when they were Elliot's age.

Jeff was Dara's only boyfriend.

"She did a really good job of managing that journey, maintaining a certain quality of life," Randall said. "She gave people a sense of purpose to do something about the illness." She made sure that the cancer and her charity "became much bigger than Dara."

Along with her husband and sons, Dara leaves four siblings, Suzanne, Mark, and Ben Simenhoff, and Adrienne French; and seven nieces and nephews.

Dara's funeral is at 3 p.m. today, Sunday, at Mishkan Shalom Synagogue. Her circle of friends is so large there will be a second service, a Quaker Meeting for Worship at 2 p.m. Jan. 20 at Germantown Friends Meetinghouse.

Dara, who wore a green wig to cheer her nephew at his bar mitzvah, asked that friends wear their "happiest colors."

Contributions can be made to Friends of Dara Barr, 209 Dogwood Lane, Wallingford, Pa., 19086.

Dara's contributions are too numerous to list.


Contact columnist Karen Heller

at kheller@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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